Historic Messenger of Peace railroad chapel car begins long road to restoration on September 13, 2007.

  • By Stephen Emerson and the HistoryLink.org Staff
  • Posted 5/18/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9825

On September 13, 2007, the Messenger of Peace, a wood railroad passenger car modified for use as a traveling church, arrives by truck at Snoqualmie, Washington, for the start of an estimated six-year restoration by the Northwest Railway Museum. The American Baptist Publication Society had operated the coach from 1898 to 1948, with nearly half of that span spent on the rails of Washington state. After 50 years spreading the Protestant gospel, the historic coach sees brief service as a roadside diner, then is moved to Grayland and used as an ocean-side cottage. By 1999 it sits on blocks, used only for storage and slowly deteriorating in the salt air. The Messenger of Peace will be donated to the museum in 2007, and the meticulous and challenging process of restoration will begin.

Religion Brought by Rail              

The Messenger of Peace was the fifth of seven chapel cars commissioned by the American Baptist Publication Society in the late 1800s and early 1900s, some financed in part by a syndicate of wealthy industrialists and others almost exclusively through public donations. All were built by the Barney and Smith Car Company of Dayton, Ohio. The Messenger of Peace was completed in May 1898, and in Union Station in Rochester, New York, began its long years of carrying the gospel to wherever the rails ran. 

Chapel cars served several functions in the propagation of their respective faiths. They were well-stocked with religious literature, which was distributed to rural settlements around the country. Services were held, sermons delivered, and Sunday school taught. Music played an important role in their mission, first through the simple singing of hymns, to later be accompanied by organs, and later still, by phonographs.

The Durable Messenger of Peace

The Messenger of Peace was largely paid for with funds contributed by Baptist women around the country, and thus picked up the sobriquet "The Ladies' Car." Over its 50 years of religious duty it was to see service in Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Illinois, West Virginia, Montana, Nevada, California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, with additional stops across the border in Canada. It put in an appearance at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, where it was said to have inspired the Catholic chapel cars. In 1910 it started an 18-month stint as part of the Railroad YMCA, returning to service with the American Baptist Publication Society in October, 1911.

For the next 35 years, the Messenger of Peace crisscrossed the country, carrying the gospel first to new settlements and later to the suburbs growing up around the nation's newer cities. From August 1913 to July 1915, it served exclusively in California. Starting with a stop at Eagle Point, Oregon, on July 9, 1915, this longest-serving of chapel cars spent the rest of its days in Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. Contemporary logs from the Messenger of Peace show church workers doing everything from preaching the gospel to helping to build permanent churches at small towns and suburbs along the route.

In 1946, the last pastor on the Messenger of Peace, Reverend C. W. Cutler, suffered a stroke, and he would formally retire in 1948. The well-traveled chapel car sat idle on a siding in South Everett for 21 months before it was officially decommissioned on March 1, 1949. Three months later, the car was sold for $400 and hauled to Snohomish, Washington, where it housed a roadside diner, the Ritz-Limited Cafe, until 1951. The Arthur Hodgins family rescued the abandoned coach in 1971 and moved it, first to their property near Snohomish and, in 1985, to Grayland, Washington, where it was used as an ocean-side cottage. Arthur Hodgins Sr. died in 2005, and in May 2007 the family offered to donate the Messenger of Peace to the Northwest Railway Museum. In September 2007, the Museum officially accepted the car and moved it to Snoqualmie by truck to begin the complex restoration effort.

Born Again

The Messenger of Peace, which was listed on the Washington Heritage Register of Historic Places in 2008 and the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, is a surviving example of late 19th-century wooden railroad car construction. Chapel cars were quite similar to standard railroad passenger coaches, differing primarily in their interior configuration, and having somewhat more austere ornamentation than commercial rail cars. They were lined with hard-backed pews and had an altar and pulpit at one end. The Messenger of Peace was paneled in oak and could seat up to 90 worshipers, with rows of three seats on one side and two on the other. Of course, during its years as a restaurant, cabin, and storage space, the original interior was largely gutted, and full restoration is a major undertaking.

The Northwest Railway Museum was founded in 1957 as the Puget Sound Railway Historical Association, changing to its current name September 1999. It is the largest and most comprehensive railway museum in Washington state, and draws more than 80,000 visitors a year. It is the museum's intent to restore the Messenger of Peace to its condition in 1917, the year it passed through the museum's home town of Snoqualmie while on the way to North Bend.

It is estimated that total restoration will cost in excess of $400,000 and take the better part of six years. Generous grants from 4Culture, the Washington State Historical Society, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and Partners in Preservation already total more than $390,000. The restoration project is comprehensive, and is scheduled to proceed as follows:

  • The project will begin by repairing and replacing damaged structural elements including side sills, platform and draft sills, and window posts. Work will require extensive dismantling of the car's facade, both inside and outside;

  • Window locations will be restored to their original locations when the car was used as a chapel car; related missing stops and moldings will be replaced;

  • Exterior siding and related moldings will be reinstalled;

  • The tern-type roofing will be repaired or replaced as required;

  • Interior paneling will be repaired or replaced as required;

  • Missing appointments including pews will be replicated and installed;

  • Missing hardware including lighting, sash latches, baggage racks, and platform railings will be sourced or manufactured.

When restoration is complete, the Messenger of Peace will live on as a tribute to the dedication of those who for 50 years lived and preached on the rails, bringing the gospel to the far-flung communities of a growing nation.


Sources: Richard R. Anderson, "The Railway Chapel Car: Messenger of Peace Joins the Collection," Northwest Railway Museum Newsletter, 2007; Rev. C. H. Rust, A Church on Wheels (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1905); Master Car Builder’s Association, Car Builders Dictionary (New York: Simmons Boardman Publishing, 1912); Wilma Rugh Taylor and Norman Thomas Taylor, This Train is Bound for Glory: The Story of America’s Chapel Cars (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1999); Rev. Harry R. Walrath, "God Rides the Rails: Chapel Cars on the Nation’s Railroads," Frontier Trails website accessed August, 2007 (http://www.frontiertrails.com/com/oldwest/chapel.html); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Railroad Chapel Car: Messenger of Peace," (by Stephen Emerson), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed May 14, 2011); "Bishop Walker's Cathedral Car of North Dakota, Church of the Advent," Chapel Car website accessed May 14, 2011 (http://www.chapelcars.com/online_book/BoundForGlory_Chap2.pdf); "Messenger of Peace Journey Log," available at Messenger of Peace website (http://www.trainmuseum.org/MoP/Chapel_car_travel_small.pdf); "Chapel Car 5 Messenger of Peace," Messenger of Peace website accessed May 14, 2011 (http://www.trainmuseum.org/MoP/A.asp; "All Aboard Museum's Latest Rail Car," Snoqualmie Valley Record, October 4, 2007 (http://www.pnwlocalnews.com/east_king/svr/news/30118314.html).

Related Topics:   Religion | Roads & Rails

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